Driverless Vehicles News….and the Lack Thereof

Despite the fact that driverless vehicles continue to make headlines, I must admit that the “news” hasn’t really been new! States continue to consider new legislation around driverless vehicles. Pilots continue to pop up around the world. Academic institutions continue to study the ethics around driverless vehicle decision-making. Companies continue to invest in the advancement of the technology. Don’t get me wrong – the industry is still investing millions into this technology and I’m still extremely excited about its potential, but I’m disappointed by the headlines.

The reality of today’s situation is that there was around a year or two of hype and we’re now in the “trough of disillusionment” (as shown in Gartner’s technology hype cycle). While driverless vehicles haven’t failed to deliver (as the Gartner model states), they are just taking longer to become a reality than most of the predictions stated. The good news is that this hype cycle predicts the “slope of enlightenment” and the “plateau of productivity” next. The technology will still come (assuming no major failures), but a lot of the hype will likely fall to the wayside.

I’m really hoping we’ll see the news stories dig a little deeper than “Driverless vehicle fender bender!” or “Driverless legislation is falling behind!” Instead, I’d like to see articles that discuss what IS working (pilots, legislation, policies) and how we can ensure quick, safe adoption of the technology when it is available. And maybe the government will even initiate headlines around what they’re doing to proactively prepare for driverless technology!!  What headlines would you like to see today (non-political ones, please!)?

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2017 CES Driverless Favorites and Reflections

While I was not able to attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, I have greatly enjoyed following the buzz around it. Automakers and technology developers have been saving up their biggest headlines for this event. I thought I’d share some of my favorites from the past few days:

Nvidia CES 2017 Keynote: Google Home AI, Cloud Gaming Service, AI Co-Pilot For Your Car: “Nvidia’s self-driving car system, the Drive PX, will now not only try to understand the environment around the car, but it will also use AI to understand what’s going on in the interior of the vehicle. Nvidia-powered cars will be able to watch which direction the driver’s head is turned, where their eyes are gazing and read their lips so the car’s AI can understand instructions even if there’s loud music playing. Huang said the car’s AI will be able to understand if the driver is angry and tell them to pull over to the side of the road if it doesn’t look like they’re prepared to drive.”

Honda Unveils First Electric Ride-Sharing Concept Car: “Honda says the two-seat vehicle could be programmed to pick up and drop off passengers when its owner isn’t using it, or to sell back remaining energy to the grid…It studies driver’s reactions and patterns using AI technology developed with SoftBank, and makes recommendations on music and tips on daily driving habits. Honda also throws in an electric skateboard in the NeuV storage compartment to go the last mile.

Faraday Future’s Embarrassing Malfunction: Faraday Future unveiled its first production car (“FF91”), but one of its demos did not go well. As stated in this article, “The stakes are incredibly high for FF, which has had a tumultuous year marked by a lot of hype, explosive growth, high-profile staff departures, lawsuits, failed payments, and questions about the company’s relationship with Jia and his company LeEco.”

Alliance for Transportation Innovation Announces 2017 Autonomous Vehicle Cross-Country Road Tour: The “AV Road Trip” will bring self-driving technology directly to the public in cities across America. Check out an EasyMile vehicle.

There were lots of fun demos with exciting interiors and exteriors expected with driverless vehicles (BMW, Chrysler’s mini-van, Faraday Future’s FF91)

Lots of unveiling of new in-car communication tools (Toyota, Hyundai/Google Home, Nissan/Microsoft, Chrysler/Google Android, Ford/Amazon Echo)

And, of course, there were loads of announcements around the arrival of Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles by the carmakers (e.g., Nissan, BMW/Intel/Mobileye, Audi/NVIDIA).

Anyone else have anything interesting from the 2017 CES to share?

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When are Driverless Vehicles REALLY Coming?!

Well obviously it depends on who you ask. And it depends on what you mean by “driverless!” As stated in this Wall Street Journal article headline, the “self-driving hype doesn’t reflect reality.” Over the last year, we have seen the auto makers and technology developers with countless headline-grabbing announcements around their number of miles tested, company partnerships and purchases, and first-time implementations. Many automakers and technology developers have promised fully automated vehicles in the next few years….and we are seeing driverless vehicle pilots happening around the world (see my blog post on experiencing a ride in one of these pilots!), so they must be coming soon, right?!

I believe the two key questions that all headline-grabbing, driverless companies should be asked to get at the heart of the issue are:

  1. What level of automation are you expecting to have available in the next few years? As this article states, everyone is expecting a Level 5 vehicle. It’s likely that most of these companies are aiming to develop Level 4 (not 5) vehicles, which means that they will be automated, but they will only be able to operate in designated areas and humans may need to take over. Most of the automation that we are seeing today are in Level 2 vehicles (e.g., Tesla’s “Autopilot” system), but we are seeing some of the shared autonomous vehicles operating at Level 4.
  2. Where are these vehicles going to be available? I think most people read headlines citing the availability of driverless vehicles in 2020 and they assume that they can go to a car dealership and purchase one. In reality, I believe we will see shared driverless fleets (similar to what Uber is testing in Pittsburgh and Nutonomy is testing in Singapore) and Level 2 and 3 automated vehicles available at dealerships.

Then the question about timing of our “driverless utopia” (or 100% fully automated, level 5 vehicles) becomes a much harder timeframe to predict. I still remain hopeful that this “utopian” future will happen in my lifetime, but that timeline is fuzzy.  When (if at all) do YOU think it will happen?

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Driverless Vehicle Ethics – Should We Care?

I think I’ve avoided this topic long enough. The types of questions the industry is often faced with are: How will the vehicle decide who to kill: the driver or other people? And will the vehicle have knowledge to make the decision about which people’s lives are more valuable? Should the vehicle aim for the cyclist with a helmet (who is protected) instead of the cyclist without one? To date, Germany is the only government agency that has taken a stance on this topic. As stated in this article, the country’s transportation minister outlined three rules as a starting point for future laws:

  1. Property damage always takes precedence over personal injury.
  2. There must be no classification of people, for example, based on their size, age and the like.
  3. If anything goes wrong, the manufacturer is liable.

Interestingly, the auto makers and technology developers are pretty quiet on this issue. I’m not surprised. I believe the media and the academics are making this into a much larger issue than it actually is (see some examples of the hype here, here, and here). When was the last time when you were driving that you were faced with a decision to kill yourself versus someone else? And, if you are in the very small group faced with that situation, how did you make the decision? Was there even time to make a decision?

MIT has developed a Moral Machine to gather a “human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence, such as self-driving cars.” The reality is that the developers working on driverless vehicles are refining the technology to deal with pedestrians, cyclists, bad weather, poor pavement markings, and construction sites…. Despite these challenges being every day occurrences, our society has put a lot of emphasis on the moral decisions….is that necessary?

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AV Pilots: Policy, Funding, and Partnerships are Happening!

Pilots, pilots, and more pilots!  This is an exciting time in the driverless vehicle world because we’re starting to see Level 3 and 4 automated vehicles being piloted in many different settings around the world (e.g., Japan, Pittsburgh, Singapore, and Dubai). And, what’s even more exciting is that governments are getting involved in a lot of different ways:

  • Establishing policies around driverless testing and pilots. Check out Australia’s National Guidelines for Automated Vehicle Trials, which focuses on safety, but also lays out clear expectations for the private industry.
  • Providing government funding for driverless pilots. The US Department of Transportation just issued a request for proposals for “automated vehicle technology “proving grounds.”
  • Government partnerships with the private sector for driverless pilots. In Ontario, for example, the province, has been seeking out applications for private industry and academic institutions to conduct AV testing. In the United Kingdom, the government awarded a £5.5 million grant to a consortium of partners, which include Bosch, Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), Jaguar Land Rover, Direct Line Group, The Floow and the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

No matter the approach, these pilots are critical for ensuring the advancement of the technology.  The technology requires thousands of miles of testing in real-world scenarios (not just test facilities!) and people need to see the technology in action to be willing to consider using it. Government agencies are starting to see the potential safety and mobility benefits of the technology more and more, but government also needs to understand (based on real-life experience) how they need to update their infrastructure, what data will be needed and be made available, procurement policy changes, how to handle liability, and how best to manage the transition period.  What else should government agencies consider as they implement these pilots?

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Should Road User Charging be Introduced along with Driverless Vehicles?

I was happy to find that a consistent theme at the ITS World Congress this year was on the importance of shifting to road user charging to fund infrastructure investments. The idea behind road user charging is that people pay fees based on how many miles a vehicle travels. Road user charging pilots are currently happening in many states, including California, Oregon, and Colorado; in addition to being established in places around the world, including Germany and New Zealand.  This is a seemingly logical consideration for government for the following reasons:

  • Many governments rely upon fuel tax revenues to fund infrastructure and the purchasing power of fuel tax revenues has declined as vehicles have become more fuel efficient and the tax hasn’t been increased enough to keep up with inflation or infrastructure spending needs.
  • Driverless vehicles have the potential to be all electric (so they’ll generate no fuel tax revenues) and to enable increased vehicle miles traveled. By charging people based on their distance traveled, this tax may discourage unnecessary trips (which is a significant concern in a driverless society).

The potential for road user charging becomes even more significant when the government considers how it might support a wide range of governmental goals.  Road user charging rates could be adjusted based on the following types of variations:

  • Charging based on time in order to reduce peak travel congestion;
  • Charging based on a cordoned area to reduce congestion in that specific region;
  • Charging based on vehicle occupancy could incentivize sharing (and, conversely, disincentivize zero and single-occupancy vehicle trips);
  • Charging based on a vehicle’s impact to the roadway (e.g., charging more for heavy vehicles or for sudden acceleration and braking)
  • Charging based on the fuel efficiency of a vehicle to encourage reduced greenhouse gas emissions; and/or
  • Charging based on road types to discourage non-local vehicles traveling on local streets;

Despite the fact that will be a challenge to implement, I believe that road user charging has the potential to be introduced at the same time as driverless vehicles. Why not leverage the excitement around the adoption of a new technology by introducing a new (and desperately needed) funding mechanism for infrastructure spending?

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How Driverless Vehicles Could Impact Parking

“We have significant parking demands today, but should we invest in a parking structure that may not be needed in a few years?” “Will we need all of the parking that we have today?”  “How can we make sure driverless vehicles aren’t parking 20 miles outside of our city center?”  Driverless vehicles will, indefinitely, have significant implications on a region’s existing and future parking requirements.  I hear questions like these all the time, so I figured it was worth a dedicated blog post.

Changes to parking requirements will largely depend upon the level of vehicle and ride sharing that occurs. If people continue to own cars similar to how they do today, this means that the number of vehicles will, generally, be the same and, consequently, the parking demand, will remain as-is. On the other hand, if the level of vehicle and ride sharing increases (and private vehicle ownership decreases), parking requirements would also decrease.

For the parking requirements that still exist – it has the potential to be re-located since vehicles can park themselves after dropping a passenger off. Urban parking could be re-located to remote locations so the expensive downtown real estate can be re-purposed. Homeowners could re-purpose their driveway and garage and pay for remote parking instead.  Remote parking will, of course, result in increased vehicle miles traveled, so government agencies will need to consider this trade-off, determine their desired outcomes, and establish pricing and policies that support them.

Other potential impacts:

  • Parking space size requirements may shrink because AV parking will be more precise
  • Buildings, transit stations, and other destinations will likely need more/better pick-up and drop-off locations due to increased ride sharing and/or vehicle pick-up/drop-offs
  • Traffic in areas with parking constraints could improve due to a reduction in vehicles circulating looking for parking.
  • Existing parking structures could be re-purposed due to reduced parking requirements.
  • Parking fees/taxes could increase or decrease depending on how much parking is still needed and how it is priced/taxed.

Driverless vehicles present an opportunity to free up a lot of valuable land; however, it’s up to the government to ensure that happens (by putting policies and pricing in place to encourage vehicle and ride sharing!). It’s also up to the government to make sure the land gets re-purposed appropriately.  Let’s start planning for that now!

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